Being born in the United States does not guarantee proficiency in English. Maybe you knew this, maybe you didn’t. But it was new to me. Here’s what I learned.
This month, the Los Angeles Times wrote about California’s status as the first state in the country to create a program aimed at improving the language skills of students who are struggling to learn English, a group known as English language learners (ELLs). In this case, the students targeted are long-term English language learners, likely having lived in the country for years—possibly their whole lives—without being able to speak the language fluently. What caught my eye was the opening anecdote: “I should be more confident in English because I was born here, but I’m embarrassed that I haven’t improved myself,” said Dasha, a junior at a Los Angeles high school.
Is Dasha a rare native-born American student who struggles with English even as she progresses to the upper grade-levels? Or is she part of a larger community, a notable subset within the ELL student population?
The answer, definitively, is the latter. The overall percentage of students ages six through 21 in grades kindergarten through 12 who were born outside of the U.S. is 4.7 percent, or 2.37 million students, according to research by the Migration Policy Institute’s Jeanne Batalova that uses 2012 Census data. But the percentage of U.S. students who are considered English language learners is nearly double that: 9.1 percent, or 4.4 million students, according to 2013 U.S. Department of Education Data. While the two figures come from different data sources, it’s clear that a large percentage of English language learners were born in the U.S.